Flight to the Future: Kevin Red Star and the Institute of American Indian Arts

07_KRSnGA_14062056_klIt is hard to overestimate the influence and importance of the Santa Fe-based Institute of American Indian Arts on contemporary Native American culture, art and artists. The school, co-founded by Dr. George Boyce and Cherokee textile and fashion designer Lloyd Kiva New, opened its doors in the fall of 1962, with Boyce serving as superintendent and New as art director. It was established and funded by the United States Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs as a two-year high-school program, but today offers bachelor of arts degrees and a handful of master’s degrees. Its list of alumni and faculty reads like a who’s who in the field of contemporary Native arts.

One such IAIA graduate is Kevin Red Star. Over the course of a year researching this prominent Native artist for our book Kevin Red Star: Crow Indian Artist (Gibbs Smith, 2014), interviewing his peers, family, teachers, collectors, associates and Kevin himself, my wife—photographer Kitty Leaken—and I gained a deep respect for the man and admiration for his art. This included a lovely few weeks spent on his family ranch in south-central Montana, adjoining the vast Crow Reservation, where we were ensconced in a teepee. It was an experience we will always treasure.

2008, Acrylic on Canvas, 20x16. Collection of Jacob Murphy Johnson.

2008, Acrylic on Canvas, 20×16. Collection of Jacob Murphy Johnson.

With the recommendation of his junior-year teacher at Lodge Grass High School in Montana, and the blessing of his family, Kevin Red Star stepped aboard a plane in late summer of 1962 and flew off over the southern horizon to join the 140 or so other Indian students for IAIA’s inaugural year. It was a momentous flight. The furthest he’d ever been from home was Sheridan, Wyo.—about 50 miles from Lodge Grass. He did not know a soul when he arrived in a town that was as much Hispanic as it was American, and where the common Native languages were Pueblo, Apache and Navajo, rather than his familiar Crow.

Kevin landed at Santa Fe’s tiny airport in late August 1962, where New met him in his convertible and drove him to the fledgling IAIA campus. He recalls, “When I got there, I was received with open arms. It was full of other students like me, fresh off the reservations. But some were from major cities, urban Indians, and they were really hip, you know. I was the only Crow, but there were a few others from Montana—a few Blackfeet and an Assiniboine Sioux.

“The first year we were shown a lot of international films, European and Japanese, and we had many art history courses looking at American, European and other international art. They introduced us to forms of art from all over the world, fine art, Impressionism, Japanese art, the Renaissance masters, abstract expressionism—everything.”

2006, watercolor/canvas, 60x48

2006, watercolor/canvas, 60×48

Initially, the school also required that all students try their hand at a variety of media. “We would spend an intensive period on one medium then move on,” Kevin says. “For instance, in clay they showed us how to do all the hand processes, then use of the wheel, then firing and glazing. With glazing, you had to measure this and measure that. I said I’m not going to deal with that—too many numbers for me! But I was fascinated with jewelry. I made some bracelets and bunch of rings, but I really never got into it. It just wasn’t me. Nor did I get into dance. I’m definitely not a dancer—I’m no Peter Pan! It was not my interest, whatsoever, nor were writing or singing.”

Kevin Red Star gravitated toward painting, thrilled with the availability, for the first time ever, of limitless paints, papers and even canvases. He spent countless hours in the small studios. “We were encouraged to paint on our own, with the studios left open until eleven at night, or later,” he says. “During the day, many of the instructors would be working there as well, so we had the opportunity to watch them create.” These initial faculty members included Allan Houser (the late, great Chiricahua Apache sculptor and painter, and arguably the most significant American Indian artist of the twentieth century), the late Fritz Scholder (a quarter Luiseno Indian and a huge creative force in contemporary Native art), the late Charles Loloma (the famous Hopi founder of the contemporary Native jewelry movement), the late Otellie Loloma (Charles’ Hopi wife and a superb artist in her own right) and the late musician and composer Louis Ballard (Cherokee/Quapaw).

KRS-06_at IAIA_klTeaching Kevin in painting were James McGrath and Houser. “Allan is recognized as an excellent three-dimensional artist but was quite an illustrator, drew very well and was a fine, fine painter—an all-around artist,” Kevin says. He was a very hands-on teacher who would spend extended time with each student, providing tips on everything from “ways of holding a paint brush and how to mix paints to design concepts. He’d bring out different things for you to consider, like do you want all the characters facing one way or should one or two be walking off or turned away?

“It was especially exciting to have these wonderful American Indian instructors,” Kevin says. “Previously, many of us had come from places where we were treated badly by non-Indian instructors, who looked down on you and didn’t promote you or pick you out for this or that, even though you were good. It was a blessing to have the situation turned around, and, given a better opportunity, the kids naturally excelled. We saw the instructors as successful people, personable professionals, with families, and they were Indian artists. They were our models, at least mine anyway.”

Part of the mission of the school was also to infuse students with an understanding of and appreciation for their own tribal art traditions and those of other tribes. This was an entirely new approach to Native American education by the federal government, which had spent decades and millions of dollars trying to erase the culture and arts that underlie Native peoples, stemming from the 1892 decree by Captain Richard Henry Pratt, the first director of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, to “Kill the Indian . . . and save the man.”

KRS-25_Red Star Ranch-4_klAt IAIA, the students spent time looking at examples of Indigenous art, past and present, and students were encouraged to study historical and art texts about their own people to deepen their understanding of what had preceded them artistically. The academic aspect of their studies, including English, math, science and social sciences, also had a decidedly Native-centric focus. They read novels and poetry by Native authors—the few then available—and studied history of tribes and United States-tribal relations.

Another aspect of the art training the students received at IAIA was a great dose of practicality—often missing today from most fine-arts education. With Charles Loloma’s oversight, the students were encouraged to sell their work in a student-run shop open to the public. Here, they got real-world experience in setting prices for their work, displaying it and dealing with customers. “I remember getting $45 to 125,” Red Star says, chuckling. “That was great! Whatever people would pay. I said, ‘I like this!’ A lot of art went through that little building! It put a bit of money in our pockets.” The students also ran a small gallery where they hung student work, faculty art and traveling shows. This provided the students with experience handling and displaying valuable artworks.

KRS-26_ABSALOOKE_LODGES_klThe school also prepared students for what awaited them in the larger art world by organizing group shows and taking them on the road. Recalls another of his formative IAIA teachers, James McGrath, “We had major support for the school coming from Stewart Udall [then United States secretary of the Interior under President John F. Kennedy] and his wife Lee. They were both from Arizona and very interested in Indian art and culture. They would ask us to do exhibitions in Washington and I would take students out there for openings.” Kevin did not make any of these trips, but some of his art did, including his work “Crow Breast Plate” in a two-year traveling show sponsored by the United States State Department that circled the world several times.

IAIA also helped organize and encouraged students to enter their work into judged events, such as the National American Indian Exhibition then held annually in Scottsdale, Ariz. In 1965, Kevin was awarded the Governor’s Trophy in the student division’s painting/sculpture category, with the winning painting purchased by Gov. Samuel Goddard. It would be the first of many such honors bestowed on the young artist.

The school operated with loose structure. Kevin recalls, “They never said, ‘This is the style to follow.’ They introduced us to lots of varying, different approaches to art and let us find our own way. They didn’t know if we’d fall flat on our faces; they were taking a chance on us—that if they provided the tools and materials, the studios and instruction, we’d excel. We did.” McGrath notes, “Those early years were an incredible experience. It was a different time. It was like a family; everyone worked together. We talked a lot, we stayed up late, and we went on field trips together.”

Kevin believes the first museum he ever entered was the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. He notes, “It was like entering a cathedral. You didn’t want to say anything, just really absorb what was in there. It was such an experience to go into downtown Santa Fe and then have the campus to come back to. It was like having the best of both worlds. When we came here, once we had a place to work and produce, everything we had held inside was just let out, like a big flood.”

CHIEF TWO BEARS, 2008, acrylic/canvas, 40x44

CHIEF TWO BEARS, 2008, acrylic/canvas, 40×44

What emerged artistically for the fledgling artist from his IAIA years was an initial focus on abstract expressionism and some representational works of traditional Crow life, the latter foretelling his future direction. Writing to Kevin’s parents, in December 1964, McGrath reported, “Kevin’s style of work is very new and very good, it seems. It is a new style in Indian painting.”

A widely published quote of Kevin’s, of uncertain origin, drawn from something he wrote in his IAIA days, aptly reflects his decision early in his career to concentrate on his own Crow cultural roots. He noted: “Indian culture has in the past been ignored to a great extent. It is for me, as well as many other Indian artists, a rich source of creative expression. It is taking a new direction today with many exciting happenings. An intertwining of my Indian culture with contemporary art expression has given me . . .  greater insight concerning my art. I hope to accomplish something for the American Indian and at the same time achieve personal satisfaction in a creative statement through my art.”

In June 1965, Kevin Red Star graduated from IAIA, and returned to Montana. His next goal was to enter the San Francisco Art Institute. Lloyd Kiva New was exuberantly supportive and penned a letter at the time to SFAI. He wrote, “Kevin Red Star has proven himself to be a sensitive and capable young man and painter. He is in the happy position of being able to tap his cultural heritage for many of his inspirations, coupled with ambition, industry and a quiet, gentle dignity. He has intellectual absorption power of unusual quality; I predict he will be one of the outstanding painters in this country.” Kevin Red Star was accepted to SFAI and New’s words now seem prophetic as the artist’s career blossomed over the next five decades and is still unfolding. Now 73 years old, Kevin is always the first to say it all began for him as a true artist at IAIA.

Sorrel Sky Gallery will host a Native American Group Show on August 17 from 5 to 7:30 pm showcasing the work of Kevin Red Star and other artists. You can also find his works at the Windsor Betts Gallery and at kevinredstar.com.

“Kevin Red Star: Crow Indian Artist,” the book by local writer Daniel Gibson and photographer Kitty Leaken has won the Multi-Cultural: Non-Fiction category of the 2015 USA Best Book Awards and is available at galleries, local bookstores and online.

Story by Daniel Gibson


Print pagePDF pageEmail page
Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed